Sunday, February 12, 2012

Listening to Beethoven's 5th

When we recorded a podcast for the Beethoven 5th Concert, Stuart Malina mentioned a thought-provoking quote from conductor Robert Shaw which should be an inspiration to all performers dealing with works that are well-known or unknown and to all listeners who, tired of hearing the same things all the time, might complain about “not another Beethoven 5th!”

Basically, every time you perform a piece, someone is hearing it for the first time and someone is hearing it for the last time.

We think of Beethoven – especially the composer of this 5th Symphony – as a titan striding across the ages, a universal hero, perhaps the greatest composer who ever lived.

In Beethoven’s day, however, it wasn’t quite the same thing.

Maynard Solomon, in the 1998 edition of his biography, lists several composers whose music was more frequently performed (and arguably therefore more popular) in concerts in Vienna in 1806 when he completed his 5th Symphony:

“Mozart, Haydn, Paer, Cherubini, Mayer, Righini and several other fashionable composers.”

I’ve actually heard a bit of Fernando Paer (from his opera, Leonora, the same story Beethoven used for his only opera, Fidelio). Simon Mayer (or Mayr) wrote not 9 but 57 symphonies, not 1 but almost 70 operas.

Vincenzo Righini, I had to look up: I knew him as a footnote because he wrote a setting of the Don Giovanni legend ten years before Mozart did. A prominent composer, he replaced Salieri as court composer in Vienna in 1787 before moving on to Berlin. (There is an asteroid named “9427 Righini” discovered in 1996, but I tend to doubt it’s named after the composer.)

It makes you wonder, considering the endurance of Paer, Mayer and Righini, who some of the “other fashionable composers” were. It also makes you wonder about the fleetingness of fame and the fine line between posterity and oblivion.

But we also have to think about concert-life in Vienna then and what we know of concert-life now.

Public concerts were still a fairly new and not very common occurrence. Most of the performances we read about in Beethoven’s biography were what we’d call “private performances” or “house concerts,” a concert held by, say, Count Rasumovsky, the Imperial Ambassador from the Russian Empire, with his in-house string quartet who would play Beethoven’s latest string quartets (say, those known as “The Rasumovsky Quartets”) for his guests. Or perhaps Prince Lobkowitz, another aristocratic fan and patron of Beethoven’s who might hire an orchestra to perform before his friends and invited guests.

Public concerts were called “Academies” – the origin of the name of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields which first gathered to rehearse at that famous church – and were usually special events or benefit concerts for famous artists. These were expensive ventures and needed the backing of various organizations to mount them: in 1807, Beethoven’s music was heard in three such concerts given by other artists.

Yet Beethoven was a popular composer, it would seem: Beethoven’s early biographer Thayer wrote that, in 1808, “it was Beethoven’s popularity that must insure success to the grand concerts for the public charities; it was his name that was known to be more attractive to the Vienna public than any other, save that of the venerable Haydn” (who, though no longer composing, still lived in Vienna a revered icon – he died the following year).

Orchestra concerts were generally handled through aristocratic circles. The piano recital as we know it did not exist outside the salons of the wealthy.

And if public concerts and the opera houses tended to cater to “fashionable composers” like Mayer and Reghini, they were also in the business of selling tickets, not promoting new music, whether we think it’s great or not.

It was the aristocrats – the social elite – who would be most inclined to “like” Beethoven’s fan page on Gesichtsbuch, had there been such a thing as social networking in those days.

Whether it was the novelty of it, the idea of being “up” with the latest trends or a genuine interest in the new music of the day, the aristocracy seemed to be the so-called elite group of “life-long classical music aficionados” even though they might not actually “understand” it. Even if they didn’t, at least they supported it. In a time when posterity was not a generally understood concept, they did a lot for today’s life-long classical music aficionados – without them, it’s quite possible Beethoven’s music would not have survived.

Conjecture, of course – but then posterity has not been kind to his “more popular” contemporaries, composers like Paer, Mayer and Righini who continued creating newer works in a circular commercial world: popular acclamation, better box office, begat more new works.

Without getting completely into the history of concerts, Beethoven only gave two of these public “academies” during his career. The second one was that famous marathon in December, 1808, which saw the premieres of the 5th & 6th Symphonies, the 4th Piano Concerto, the newly-published concert aria, “Ah, Perfido!”, selections from the C Major Mass and, since he’d already engaged the choir, added the Choral Fantasy as a hot-off-the-press bonus just for the occasion. This concert was four hours long, there was a problem with the heat, the audience (and you can imagine, the players) were exhausted and it was prepared with only one rehearsal! At one point in the Choral Fantasy, they had to stop and start over again. Apparently, there were no critical reviews from this concert.

A second performance of the 5th Symphony a year and a half later was reviewed for the leading German-language periodical, the Leipzig-based Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung (General Musical Journal) by E.T.A. Hoffman,

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“Radiant beams shoot through the deep night of this region, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy all within us except the pain of endless longing—a longing in which every pleasure that rose up amid jubilant tones sinks and succumbs. Only through this pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope, and joy, tries to burst our breasts with a full-voiced general cry from all the passions, do we live on and are captivated beholders of the spirits.”
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Also in 1810, in a separate article, Hoffman wrote about Beethoven’s new symphony,

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“How this wonderful composition, in a climax that climbs on and on, leads the listener imperiously forward into the spirit world of the infinite!… No doubt the whole rushes like an ingenious rhapsody past many a man, but the soul of each thoughtful listener is assuredly stirred, deeply and intimately, by a feeling that is none other than that unutterable portentous longing, and until the final chord — indeed, even in the moments that follow it — he will be powerless to step out of that wondrous spirit realm where grief and joy embrace him in the form of sound…”
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On the other hand, an anonymous French critic – Slonimsky’s wonderful Lexicon of Musical Invective does not mention the work in question – wrote in 1810,

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“Beethoven, who is often bizarre and baroque” [in the original sense of the word used to describe a misshapen pearl, rather than the period of Bach and Handel], “takes at time the majestic flight of an eagle and then creeps in rocky pathways. He first fills the soul with sweet melancholy and then shatters it by a mass of barbarous chords. He seems to harbor together doves and crocodiles.”
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In 1843 – 35 years after the 5th’s premiere and 16 years after Beethoven’s death – Alexander Ulybyshev, a Russian writer about music published this passage in his “New Biography of Mozart,” writing about that transition from the Scherzo to the blaze of C Major that triumphantly opens the finale:

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“There is a strange melody which combined with a stranger harmony of a double pedal point in the bass on G and C, produces a sort of odious meowing and discords to shatter the least sensitive ear.”
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Fourteen years later, Ulybyshev wrote this in a critical essay about Beethoven, about the same passage:

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“Here you have a fragment of 44 measures where Beethoven deemed it necessary to suspend the habeas corpus of music by stripping it of all that might resemble melody, harmony and any sort of rhythm… Is it music, yes or no? If I am answered in the affirmative, I would say this does not belong to the art which I am in the habit of considering as music.”
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Outside Vienna, the number of performances of Beethoven’s music grew slowly. In the Austrian city of Graz, what was probably his 2nd Symphony was performed in 1805 at one of their Liebhaber Concerts (technically, liebhaber is the German equivalent of amateur, one who “has love” for something, as opposed to kenner, one who “has knowledge” or technical understanding of something). Four years later, the listeners of Graz had a chance to hear two more symphonies, the “Eroica” and the recently premiered “Pastorale.”

While his music – especially his Septet Op.21 (admittedly Beethoven’s first big “hit”)but also his piano concertos and the 1st Symphony – were entering the standard repertoire across Germany. England, however, seemed quite taken with his music: the first two symphonies were already played by 1803, and by two years later, ten performances of major works of his were played in London.

On the other hand, between 1802 and 1807, none of his pieces were performed in Paris. As he wrote to a friend, “The French find my music beyond their powers of performance.” If the 1st Symphony had been performed once by 1811, there were very few performances of anything until the late-1820s.

And yet the first performance of a Beethoven symphony in the United States took place in (surprisingly) Lexington, Kentucky on Nov.17, 1817, led by the Bohemian-born composer/conductor/violinist Anton Philip Heinrich who walked from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to take up a post as a theatrical director there, only to discover the job had been cancelled for lack of funds and so decided, rather than walking back, he would take a riverboat down the Ohio and try his luck elsewhere. We’re not sure if this was the 1st or the 5th Symphony, but when Heinrich, now settled in New York City, chaired the committee that founded what became the New York Philharmonic in 1842, the very first concert they performed included Beethoven’s 5th. 

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A famous passage in the novel, Howards End by Englishman E.M. Forster, published in 1910, describes the reaction of the Schlegel family – including the two leading female characters, sisters Margaret and Helen, their music-loving younger brother and their aunt – to a concert where the orchestra is performing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

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It will be generally admitted that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. All sorts and conditions are satisfied by it. Whether you are like Mrs. Munt, and tap surreptitiously when the tunes come-- of course, not so as to disturb the others--or like Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music's flood; or like Margaret, who can only see the music; or like Tibby, who is profoundly versed in counterpoint, and holds the full score open on his knee; or like their cousin, Fraulein Mosebach, who remembers all the time that Beethoven is echt Deutsch; or like Fraulein Mosebach's young man, who can remember nothing but Fraulein Mosebach: in any case, the passion of your life becomes more vivid, and you are bound to admit that such a noise is cheap at two shillings. It is cheap, even if you hear it in the Queen's Hall, dreariest music-room in London, though not as dreary as the Free Trade Hall, Manchester; and even if you sit on the extreme left of that hall, so that the brass bumps at you before the rest of the orchestra arrives, it is still cheap….

“For the Andante had begun--very beautiful, but bearing a family likeness to all the other beautiful Andantes that Beethoven had written, and, to Helen's mind, rather disconnecting the heroes and shipwrecks of the first movement from the heroes and goblins of the third. She heard the tune through once, and then her attention wandered, and she gazed at the audience, or the organ, or the architecture. Much did she censure the attenuated Cupids who encircle the ceiling of the Queen's Hall, inclining each to each with vapid gesture, and clad in sallow pantaloons, on which the October sunlight struck. "How awful to marry a man like those Cupids!" thought Helen. Here Beethoven started decorating his tune, so she heard him through once more, and then she smiled at her Cousin Frieda. But Frieda, listening to Classical Music, could not respond. Herr Liesecke, too, looked as if wild horses could not make him inattentive; there were lines across his forehead, his lips were parted, his pince-nez at right angles to his nose, and he had laid a thick, white hand on either knee. And next to her was Aunt Juley, so British, and wanting to tap. How interesting that row of people was! What diverse influences had gone to the making! Here Beethoven, after humming and hawing with great sweetness, said "Heigho," and the Andante came to an end. Applause, and a round of "wunderschoning" and pracht volleying from the German contingent. Margaret started talking to her new young man; Helen said to her aunt: "Now comes the wonderful movement: first of all the goblins, and then a trio of elephants dancing"; and Tibby implored the company generally to look out for the transitional passage on the drum.

"On the what, dear?"

"On the drum, Aunt Juley."

"No; look out for the part where you think you have done with the goblins and they come back," breathed Helen, as the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation for the second time. Helen could not contradict them, for, once at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right. Her brother raised his finger; it was the transitional passage on the drum.

For, as if things were going too far, Beethoven took hold of the goblins and made them do what he wanted. He appeared in person. He gave them a little push, and they began to walk in a major key instead of in a minor, and then--he blew with his mouth and they were scattered! Gusts of splendour, gods and demigods contending with vast swords, colour and fragrance broadcast on the field of battle, magnificent victory, magnificent death! Oh, it all burst before the girl, and she even stretched out her gloved hands as if it was tangible. Any fate was titanic; any contest desirable; conqueror and conquered would alike be applauded by the angels of the utmost stars.

And the goblins--they had not really been there at all? They were only the phantoms of cowardice and unbelief? One healthy human impulse would dispel them? Men like the Wilcoxes, or ex-President Roosevelt, would say yes. Beethoven knew better. The goblins really had been there. They might return--and they did. It was as if the splendour of life might boil over and waste to steam and froth. In its dissolution one heard the terrible, ominous note, and a goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall. Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.
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E.M. Forster, Howards End, excerpt from Chapter 5 

-- Dick Strawser

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